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Mentally Ill in Prison: A Tragedy in the Making if Not Treated

(June 5, 2014) Warren Pennick, 56, was found dead in his cell early Tuesday morning nearly a month after being transferred from a mental health facility to a prison in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. The inmate’s death was ruled as a “passive” suicide hanging using a bed sheet

Pennick, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was serving a 20- to 40-year prison sentence for stabbing his mother to death in 2012. His diagnosis allowed him to receive treatment at a psychiatric hospital rather than at the prison.

But in late April, Pennick was transferred back to the prison “once his mental illness was under control,” said his defense attorney, Robert Adshead. “Unfortunately, the prison system is just not set up to deal with someone so seriously mentally ill no matter how much the illness may seem under control.”

While the deaths of Pennick and his mother are tragedies, they are certainly not surprising.

There are approximately 1,000 homicides – among the estimated 20,000 total homicides in the US committed each year by people with untreated severe mental illness. But it is even more likely that a person with schizophrenia will commit suicide, with an estimated 10 to 13 percent
committing the act each year. Add incarceration to the mix and a deadly outcome is even more likely.

Stories like these remind us that as people with psychiatric disease are left untreated they will increasingly fill our jails and prisons due to violent crime or small misdemeanors, and corrections officials will be forced to assume responsibility for their mental health care, despite the fact that they are not trained to do so.

The mental health system is broken and one need look no further than the criminal justice system to see just how badly.

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